School funding concerns dominate South Jersey budget hearing

Gov. Chris Christie's proposed state budget for the upcoming 2017 fiscal year may call for every public school district to get a small boost in aid, but for many districts the increase is still far short of the millions more they should be receiving under the state's eight-year-old school funding formula law.

New Jersey lawmakers on the Assembly Budget Committee were reminded of that reality Wednesday during a public hearing on the governor's $34.8 billion spending plan. The issue of adequate funding dominated the meeting, as officials and parents from several area school districts voiced their concerns about the impacts of years of chronic under funding.

"While we're grateful for any increase. It's only a drop in the bucket," Chesterfield school board member Andrea Katz said during the over three-hour public hearing, the second of three scheduled by the Assembly.

Held at the Scottish Rites Auditorium, the hearing drew several dozen residents and advocates who testified about the proposed budget and their organizations' funding needs.

The spending plan, which was unveiled by Christie last month, relies on modest 3.1 percent revenue growth, and calls for no tax increases. It includes a record high $1.9 billion payment into the state's public employee pension system, but keeps aid to municipalities flat and gives most schools only a small boost in state funding.

Chesterfield, a one building, kindergarten-to-sixth-grade district in northern Burlington County, is slated to receive a total of $419,983 in state aid. The total represents a 4 percent increase but remains the lowest aid sum among any Burlington County districts.

Katz said it also amounts to just 11 percent of the close to $3 million the district should receive under the 2008 funding formula signed into law by Christie's predecessor, Democrat Jon S. Corzine.

The low percentage makes Chesterfield the "most underfunded district in the state," Katz said.

The funding formula is designed to provide school districts with aid based on their enrollment and their populations of impoverished and other special needs students.

It has never been fully funded.

The closest the state came was during Corzine's final two years in office, when his administration used roughly $1 billion in federal stimulus funds to stave off school aid cuts.

None of those federal dollars remained when Christie took office in 2010 and was forced to freeze some $475 million in scheduled school aid payments to help close a $2 billion budget deficit he inherited. He then cut some $820 million in school aid for the 2010-11 school year, forcing many districts across the state to layoff staff, eliminate programs and raise taxes to deal with the revenue loss.

Christie has boosted school aid each year since those cuts, but the increases have generally been small and funding has remained well below what many districts are due to receive based on enrollment increases and demographic changes.

In addition to Chesterfield, officials from Delran, Woodbury, Freehold, Red Bank and Lindenwold all testified that their districts were being shortchanged, as did a representative of the state Council of County Vocational-Technical School Districts.

Chesterfield Superintendent Scott Heino, who accompanied Katz at the hearing, said the chronic short fall has forced the district to increase its class sizes, cut programs and delay replacing aging computers and other equipment and infrastructure.

"These are things happening to us on a daily basis," Heino said.

The other school officials described similar hardships and noted that school taxes have also risen due to the lack of adequate aid.

Delran parent Michael Piper testified on behalf of the school district, arguing that the kindergarten-to-12th grade district has been underfunded by close to $80 million during the last seven years.

"I'm a father and a taxpayer and my concern is for my children and their future," he said.

Although some experts have estimated it would require an additional $1 billion in revenues for the state to provide that amount of aid, Piper and other school officials said that the state could boost their aid to appropriate levels without raising taxes.

Their solution is for the state to reduce the large sums of additional money, known as "adjustment aid," that some school districts receive above what the state's funding formula allots.

In Burlington County, Burlington City, Pemberton Township, Eastampton, Hainesport, Mount Holly and Willingboro are among the districts that receive varying amounts of adjustment aid.

The extra money allows districts that would have received less aid under the funding formula, and those that have experienced large enrollment losses, to be held harmless for the changes. Critics claim it overfunds those districts at the expense of districts like Delran and Chesterfield.

"We're not asking you to put more money in. Just apply the formula to everyone and underfund us all fairly," Lindenwold Superintendent Lori Moore said.

Lawmakers at the hearing said the issue was one of the most important and difficult one facing lawmakers. They cautioned that redistributing aid would be fought by legislators representing districts that stand to lose funding.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said he planned to reintroduce legislation he penned in 2014 to create a new state aid category for the most underfunded school districts in order to boost their totals.

In order to qualify for the added aid, districts would need to meet certain benchmarks for spending efficiency. Aid awards would also be capped in order to limit the additional expense.

Singleton described the bill as a way to begin boosting aid to districts that have been chronically underfunded without necessarily resorting to large cuts to other districts or state programs.

"Creating winners and losers isn't necessarily the best way to get to the finish line," he said after the hearing. "If we fail to do something, we will continue to exacerbate the growing disparities in education and economic opportunity we see by class and race in our state."

The Assembly Budget Committee will hold its final public hearing on the budget Monday at the Statehouse in Trenton. 


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